Tuesday, March 24, 2009

We Cracked Under The Pressure In 1997, But Rafa's Liverpool Are Equipped To Take It To The Wire This Time

The date was Sunday, April 6, 1997 and Liverpool were going for their first league championship in what had been a long seven years.

We were two weeks from playing Manchester United in what was scheduled as one of those classic 'title deciders', although Arsenal were also in the running. Through January, we had been the leaders, but United were the team ahead now. All we had to do was win games, stay close and hope they lost their nerve.

Instead, we lost at home to Coventry. Dion Dublin scored the winner (he reminded me of it when I met up with him at Anfield for Sky at the weekend). Coventry were in the bottom three but won 2-1 that day.

I can remember us being gripped by tension; the pressure of needing to win games, score free-kicks, make every chance count. The anxiety got to us. We were still good players, but those good players stopped playing. It feels like the prize is right in front of you, then it is gone.

Players suddenly make the wrong decisions. Goalkeepers will lose faith in their defenders, they will come for crosses when they should stay at home. Midfielders will try long passes when they should be short and simple as they will try to force openings.
Strikers will snatch at chances and miss when it might have been easier to score. Instead of penalties and free-kicks being given in your favour, they are given against you.

United won the league that year with 75 points, followed by Newcastle, Arsenal and Liverpool fourth, all on 68 points. The good news is that a sudden loss of form and momentum can be over as soon as it started. When you have players like Cristiano Ronaldo in your team, a moment of genius - when he's on top of his game - can end a bad run and start another good run.

Pressure changes you. Just like United now, we stopped playing with freedom and started playing with fear. In Sir Alex Ferguson's favour, nobody is better at reversing a poor run than a group that includes players like the immaculate Ryan Giggs, Rio Ferdinand and Paul Scholes.

United are the modern-day masters of winning a league from here, though Liverpool certainly have the momentum now and are playing with confidence.

Steven Gerrard is the best player in the country and Xabi Alonso has also enjoyed a wonderful season. Now Javier Mascherano is back on his game.

I have been critical of Rafa Benitez, but he made the right choices against Aston Villa. He picked his best team, regardless of the fact that he had to make two changes from the side who won 4-1 at Old Trafford. If he does that for the run-in, Liverpool have a chance. It will be interesting to see if either team is distracted by the Champions League.

Benitez has been guilty of changing his team, moving Jamie Carragher to right back unnecessarily. Now he must be consistent in his selection, as well as hoping Gerrard and Fernando Torres return from this ill-timed international break injury free.

Sir Alex Ferguson won't be happy with the delay until United's next game, but at least it is against a Villa team in sharp decline.

There is still a great deal of football to play and Arsenal have to play both clubs, as well as Chelsea.

We have a title race again. So who will crack first?

Gillett Ponders Franchise Sale

The future of Liverpool co-owner George Gillett may once again come into the spotlight after reports claim he is considering selling the Montreal Canadiens NHL franchise.

Gillett’s fellow owner at Liverpool, Tom Hicks, has made it clear that he wants to stay at Anfield for the long term, but nothing has been heard from Gillett on his plans.

According to reports, Gillett has called in financial advisors to take stock of his assets, and is considering anything from restructuring of his interests to a sell-off.

“The process has been started but we’re only at the beginning,” Canadiens team president Pierre Boivin told La Presse.

“We’re not hiding it; we’re going through a very difficult economic period.”

A new stadium for Liverpool has been put on hold due to the credit crunch with Gillett and Hicks engaging in a public spat before claiming their relationship has been repaired.

Rafa Benitez Looking To Bring Arjen Robben To Liverpool

Rafael Benitez is apparently looking to bring Arjen Robben back to England as he plans his summer spending with Liverpool.

Having recently signed a new deal at the club, the former Valencia coach is thought to be looking at the future and already wants to build for next season.

Both AS and Marca, citing English sources, claim that his top priority is Robben, who has been in excellent form for Real Madrid, leading them to within just six points of Barcelona in La Primera.

The Dutch international joined the Spanish side from Chelsea and whilst he has struggled with injuries, he could be the natural winger than Benitez is after.

At the moment Liverpool are using both Albert Riera and Dirk Kuyt on the flanks, but suffice to say that - despite their recent productivity in front of goal - neither appear to have the speed and trickery of Robben.

According to the Daily Star, Benitez will have around £30 million to spend next summer and he could well make a bid of around £20 million for Robben.

The problems with him leaving Real Madrid are clear though: firstly; the club would be reluctant to sell the winger due to his sparkling form and secondly; with a new president coming in, it would surely be foolhardy to sell one of the best players to a European rival.

Even at the price of £20 million it seems highly unlikely that Real Madrid would be tempted as Robben has become one of their most important players this season.

Alvaro Arbeloa Lauds Liverpool Captain Steven Gerrard

Spanish defender Alvaro Arbeloa has heaped praised on team-mate Steven Gerrard after watching him score three of Liverpool's five goals against Aston Villa on Sunday.

The Spain international suggested that the Reds captain should claim plenty of individual awards for his performances throughout the 2008/09 campaign.

"Stevie was excellent. He deserves all the credit he gets because he is a key player for us and performs like a true captain," Arbeloa is quoted as saying in The Sun.

"I think he is having an amazing season. He deserves to be the best."

The Merseyside based outfit moved to within one point of Premier League leaders Manchester United after their latest victory.

Liverpool were a goal to the good just eight minutes into Sunday's fixture, and the 26-year-old feels scoring early goals could be the key to success.

"We had a really good start to the game and I think that kind of first-half display is the key.

"If we can start really well it can be important because an early goal can open up a tight match.

"We have to keep going, build on the momentum of the past week or so and make sure we fight right up until the end of the season."

Carragher Fires Title Warning

Liverpool defender Jamie Carragher believes Manchester United will be feeling the heat in the Premier League title race after a perfect weekend for the Anfield outfit.

United's 2-0 loss to Fulham on Saturday was swiftly followed by Liverpool's 5-0 demolition of Aston Villa 24 hours later, a result which saw Rafael Benitez's side move to within a point of the leaders at the summit.

Liverpool's bulldozing display at Anfield came after comprehensive wins over United and Real Madrid in domestic and European competition respectively, and Carragher believes his side is coming into form at just the right time.

"This will have sent a message out to United and Chelsea," said the 31-year-old.

"Let's not kid ourselves, they'd have been watching the game.

"When you play Real Madrid and Manchester United and score so many goals, you know in the back of your mind that can't happen every week so to get five against Villa was a magnificent achievement.

"If we'd have dropped points against Villa, United's defeat at Fulham wouldn't have made that much of a difference but we've capitalised on it.

"Now United will realise they are in a fight for the league."

Carragher believes Liverpool have recovered well from a wobble at the turn of the year which saw United displace them at the Premier League summit.

"We are maturing and getting used to the demands of fighting for a title," he said.

"We were there earlier in the season but, having not been in that position before, maybe we didn't know how to deal with it.

"We've probably found it difficult a few times this season to cope with that.

"We're well aware that the title is in Manchester United's hands, but we're trying to put them under as much pressure as possible."

Bruce: Reina Knows The Score

Liverpool legend Bruce Grobbelaar would not be surprised to see Jose Reina add a goalscoring threat to his list of attributes.

Former goalkeeper Grobbelaar, who was a member of Liverpool's 1990 championship-winning squad, has been so impressed by Spanish shot-stopper Reina he considers him an attacking weapon for Rafael Benitez.

It was Reina's long kick which set up Albert Riera to score against Aston Villa on Sunday, and Grobbelaar claims opposition goalkeepers need to be aware of his potential menace.

"I've always said Reina has the best distribution out of the continental 'keepers," Grobbelaar told BBC Radio Five Live.

"His kicking out and throwing is absolutely superb.

"He might actually score from a kick one day, either out of his hands or he'll come 35 yards out and have a go at goal."

Grobbelaar has been thrilled to see Liverpool revive their Barclays Premier League title challenge, as they attempt to end a 19-year wait to be champions of England again.

The 5-0 home victory over Villa took Liverpool to just one point behind leaders Manchester United, who have a game in hand but have lost back-to-back league games.

"It's brilliant," said Grobbelaar. "It's come at a great time."

He added: "We know we have got to win every single game we play.

"Our away form has been better than our home form, despite the Villa match, so we know what we have got to do.

"United, on the other hand, have had this little hiccup.

"They've got to go away on international duty and come back and regroup.

"Believe me, this is not over by a long way."

Liverpool will go top before United play their next game if they win at Fulham on April 4, 24 hours before the Red Devils face Villa at Old Trafford.

Manager Benitez has stressed there is "real belief" among his squad that they "can beat anyone".

Benitez added: "But we must be calm, win the next game, get the points and keep going until the end. Otherwise everything will be wasted.

"Clearly we have confidence and the team is playing well. But we must just wait to see what happens next to United, while we must keep going and keep the team playing at this level."

Real Madrid Give Up On Liverpool Ace Steven Gerrard

Real Madrid will not be pursuing Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard during the summer transfer window as the Spanish giants have given up on the Englishman.

The Daily Mail claims Real Madrid presidential candidate Florentino Perez has been told by sources close to the player that he has no intention of leaving Anfield, no matter how much cash is tabled.

Reports suggest the Spaniard is promising big-money signings in an attempt to help his election campaign, and return to power this summer.

However, despite talk of an €80 million bid from the Bernabeu club, voices in England are confident that the Reds captain will stay under Rafael Benitez's wings.

Fernando Torres and Xabi Alonso have also been touted as potential Real Madrid targets, but neither move is likely to materialise.

With Gerrard seemingly out of the picture, the English publication believes Perez will still try for Kaka and Cristiano Ronaldo, despite both players insisting they will stay at their respective clubs.

Milan have always stated that their man was not for sale, and many will remember the Manchester City outcome when they tried to land the Brazilian. In addition, Real have already tried and failed to sign Cristiano Ronaldo from Manchester United last year.